Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew

Indira_Gandhi1 lee_kuan_yew1

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is compared to Indira Gandhi by the Indian journalist, Sunanda Datta-Ray, who once worked for The Straits Times.

In his book, Looking East to Look West, exploring India-Singapore relations, based on his interviews with MM Lee, he writes:

Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future. Both dominated the scene around them. So much so that though lacking the alliterative resonance of the loyalist chant during the Emergency, 'Indira is India, India is Indira', it might be more accurate to recite 'Kuan Yew is Singapore, Singapore is Kuan Yew'. He is probably the world's only democratically elected leader who can boast, as France's Louis XIV is believed to have done, 'L'etat c'est moi' (I am the state). That, too, has an Indian parallel. It was only half in jest that British newspapers bestowed on Indira Gandhi the 'Empress of India' title invented for Queen Victoria.

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Paul Theroux on Kali and Calcutta

In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Theroux describes an animal sacrifice at the Kali temple in Kalighat. A goat, garlanded with flowers, is led bleating into a walled enclosure to the beat of drums. Once inside, the terrified creature is thrust between two upright stakes and caressed by a barefoot priest, who then hacks off its head to screeches of delight from the crowd.

The narrator, Jerry Delfont, an American travel writer invited to give talks in Calcutta (Kolkata) by the US consulate, is horrified by the spectacle. He is then led inside the temple, which is also frightening:

We shuffled past an inside window where the image of the goddess Kali, gleaming black and brightly marked, stared with orange lozenge eyes from a stack of blossoms and offerings. I was briefly frightened, jostled by the mob in this stifling place of incense and flowers and dishes of money and frantic pilgrims, who were twitching with gestures of devotion and gasping, seeming to eat the air, all of them staring wildly at the furious image.

Theroux is clearly writing as an outsider, who doesn't share the religious sentiments of the Hindus. The scene is nightmarish. Even Hindus may recoil from the animal sacrifice. And was it necessary to give such a lurid description of the image of the goddess?

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Kipling, race and religion

Kipling
Kipling
The uproar in Singapore against Pastor Rony Tan, who was questioned by the authorities and had to apologize for mocking the religious beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists, reminds me of the controversy surrounding a famous writer.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai, in the JJ School of Art, where his father was the dean. The bungalow is being restored and will be turned into a museum, but it will feature paintings by local artists instead of showcasing Kipling memorabilia. Local officials frowned on plans to include a Kipling room because he is seen as an imperialist, reported the Telegraph. Young Indian students interviewed by the BBC World Service, however, said they were proud he was born there.

I heard it on the BBC arts programme Strand on the day the Straits Times reported the pastor had been questioned by the authorities. You can still hear it here.

Kipling also glorified Christianity at the expense of other religions. He wrote the poem, The White Man’s Burden, and about “lesser breeds without the law”. Racism is blatant in that line from his poem, Recessional.

And yet it is a surprisingly poignant poem. Written in 1897, during Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it reflects on the decline and fall of empires and is a prayer to God to spare the British and forgive any sins of vainglory:

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Will A Suitable Girl be as good as The Glass Palace?

Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth

The news that Vikram Seth (left) is writing a sequel to A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, had me reaching for another book I love: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh (below).

What set me off was an interview Seth gave to The Hindu newspaper in India. The sequel, A Suitable Girl, will be set in the present, he said, and Lata, the heroine of A Suitable Boy, will be in her eighties. She was a young woman in A Suitable Boy, set in the early years of Indian independence, and the title referred to Haresh, the shoe company executive she married.

“She may be married to her husband Haresh, or she may be widowed,” said Seth about the sequel, which will be published in 2013, and is also about the Indian custom of arranged marriages. “A Suitable Girl is being sought for her grandson, who confides in her quite a bit.”

He added: ““It is going to be largely set in India, but could also involve other nations.”

Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh

That is why I was reminded of The Glass Palace, an epic novel starting with the British conquest of Burma and ending with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Rangoon.

The book starts with the Indian Rajkumar’s arrival in Mandalay just before the British occupation in the 19th century and goes on to describe the lives of people in Burma, India and Malaya under British rule, the momentous events of the Second World War, and their aftermath.

Rajkumar is just a boy, an orphan, when he arrives in Mandalay. We see him make a fortune as a timber merchant in Rangoon, lose everything in the Second World War, and live to a ripe old age in India.

Panoramic novel

In this panoramic novel with a diverse cast of Indians, Burmese and Chinese, three characters stand out: Rajkumar; his beloved wife, Dolly, who had been a maid to the Burmese queen; and Dolly’s friend, Uma, the Indian Collector’s wife.

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Incredible India: Through a newsman’s eyes

Inspiteofthegods India is an unlikely economic giant. The vast majority of its people don't even have steady jobs, points out Edward Luce in his insightful book on India.

Fewer than 40 million of its 470 million workforce are employed in the "organized sector", which offers job protection and other benefits. The government and the public sector are the biggest employers, employing 25 million people. The big Indian companies we hear about such as Infosys and Reliance Industries employ far fewer people. Less than 1 per cent works in the IT industry and yet India has become a software giant.

 Edward Luce aptly calls his book In Spite Of The Gods: The Strange Rise Of Modern India. India is a deeply religious, largely superstitious country, he says, where most people continue to live in the Edward_lucevillages because there are not enough jobs in the cities. Unlike America or Britain, India has not industrialized on a large scale before setting up high-tech industries.

Luce knows India inside out. He was the Financial Times' South Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi from 2001 to 2006 before becoming the newspaper's Washington bureau chief. And his wife is an Indian.

Luce traces India's lopsided growth to the policies set by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He promoted capital-intensive industries and poured as much money into higher education as in primary education. The result: India produces about a million engineering graduates a year but only 65 percent of the population is literate.

India has to change into a more urban, industrial economy, says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Luce agrees with him. Yes, they have met, not once but several times.

This is a tight, well-written book which describes the country, its people and politics with interesting details and anecdotes.

Luce recalls an interview with Sonia Gandhi in 2004:

"You know politics does not come easily to me," she said. "I do not enjoy it. I do not even think I am very good at it. Politics killed my mother-in-law and it killed my husband. But when I saw what they were doing to India's secular culture, I felt I could no longer stand by and watch it happen without doing something," she said (referring to the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002). "Secularism is the most important legacy of my family. I had to stand up and defend it. I could not watch them tear it." Sonia's eyes were brimming with tears. She was not sobbing. But there was an intense sadness in her face.

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An absorbing history of India since independence

India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra_guha Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi: The History Of The World's Largest Democracy is a riveting account of India since independence  in 1947. 

The narrative never flags. Historical figures are brought to life and history re-enacted in its pages. It makes you appreciate the greatness of Gandhi and Nehru as well as India as it is today.

The leaders may have shrunken in stature, the country pulled in different directions by political parties representing various groups and communities, but democracy has deepened, not weakened, says Guha. The coalition governments that have come and gone over the past two decades are a sign that the country today can be governed only by consensus. No one can do another Indira Gandhi.

Indira GandhiImage via Wikipedia

She was Nehru's daughter in her secular outlook. Nobody can say she discriminated against any community though she was forced to fight Sikh separatists and sent the army after them into the Golden Temple, their holiest shrine, for which she paid with her life – killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

But, apart from their secular outlook, father and daughter had little in common. Nehru respected democracy, the independence of the media and the judiciary. The Congress party in his time was also more independent, run by powerful politicians who did not necessarily listen to him though he was the prime minister and their leader.

Nehru had friends even among his political opponents. Guha writes in absorbing detail about the countless actions taken by Gandhi and Nehru to keep India secular. He makes you admire them simply by describing what they did.

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Paul Theroux revisits Asia

Ghost Train To The Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has written an immensely readable sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, repeating that railway journey from Europe to Asia and back which earned him fame and fortune more than 30 years ago. It is bursting with people and places, rich in indelible portraits. I can’t forget the Korean monk Theroux meets in Myanmar who carries all his possessions in a little cloth bag and the English-speaking urchins in Amritsar, India, who can’t read or write.

There is drama too. A government agent sneaks into a talk by Theroux at the US embassy in Turkmenistan and photographs a dissident before an American  official seizes the film and turns the agent out of the building. But the agent files a report and Theroux has to leave the country in a hurry as a suspected troublemaker.

Not everyone will be pleased with Theroux’s accounts of the countries he revisits. He describes Bangalore, India’s IT capital, as a high-tech sweatshop. Singapore, in his account, is rigid with rules and taboos, a virtual one-party state with licensed brothels. Myanmar is ruled by fear, Sri Lanka drained by insurgency, Cambodia yet to recover from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, China dispatched in a couple of paragraphs as ugly beyond words, the Central Asian republics — formerly part of the Soviet Union – are primitive, polar opposites of Western democracies.

Only Vietnam gets a glowing treatment. Even its prostitutes are more colourful –- biker chicks in Hanoi screech to a halt in the writer’s path and ask: “You want boom boom?” And there is Japan –- kinky, high-tech, like no other country in the world but rich, peaceful, stable –- where, Theroux claims, the police actually prefer organised crime to the unorganised variety because it is organised. Japan certainly seems like paradise compared with Siberia, where Theroux travels next, taking the dirty, unkempt Trans-Siberian Express with Russians who spend days and nights making the long journey in a drunken haze.

A writer’s journey

But Ghost Train is not just a travelogue. It’s also a writer’s journey –- Theroux is revisiting old places to connect with his past and see how he himself has changed.

“Memory is a ghost train too”, he writes and explains why he made the journey:

“Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes –- but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps… would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.”

He reflects on the price of his literary success. The Great Railway Bazaar brought him success -– at the expense of his first marriage. He returned to London at the end of that long journey in the 1970s to find his wife was having an affair. He recalls his emotional torment as he wrote that book.

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